By Jonathan Gang
BU News Service
There are guitar heroes, there are guitar legends and, then there is Buddy Guy. Arguably the current elder statesman of the electric blues after BB King’s passing in May, Guy, 79, plied his craft with passion and a refreshing spontaneity in a show at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre Thursday.
Guy is a consummate showman, a skill he has honed over nearly 60 years of touring. Whereas many artists of his age and experienced have settled into a staid, well-rehearsed routine by this point in their careers, Guy kept things surprisingly loose. His freewheeling, nearly two-hour set touched on many of his own classics, as well as songs from both his blues forbearers and the more famous guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix that he has inspired.
The show’s centerpiece and highlight was a seemingly-spontaneous medley that doubled as a lesson in the history of the blues. Beginning with an anecdote about speaking to a journalist’s mother who requested John Lee Hooker’s “Boggie Chillen” before the show, Guy launched into an extended tour through the songs and styles of Hooker, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and BB King. This included deft impressions of the guitar and singing styles of each artist, responses to requests shouted from the crowd, and song changes that seemed to happen on a whim, sometimes even mid-verse.
As a guitar player, Guy is the torchbearer for the Chicago blues, an electric style that was defined by artists like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Howlin’ Wolf and their recordings on Chess Records, where Guy was a session player in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. He is a master of dynamics, creating dramatic tension in his solos by contrasting passages of quiet, gently played notes with jarring explosions of speed and volume.
Also on display was his seemingly endless bag of tricks for playing the guitar in unconventional ways, a practice that was a large influence on famous guitar slingers like Hendrix and Pete Townshend back in the early days of Rock ‘n Roll. These included moments where he played with one hand, with a drumstick, with his guitar flipped upside down and backwards, and, most impressively, with his guitar placed flat on top of a speaker cabinet as he sipped a cup of tea with his free hand.
His vocals, like his guitar playing, deftly passed from a whispery falsetto to deep, impassioned shouts and growls. Showing impressive mobility and energy for a man of his age, Guy animated his performance with gyrating dance moves and lively, sometimes vulgar stage banter. He even took a walk from the stage into the crowd during an extended jam on the song “Some Else is Steppin’ In,” doing a full lap of the aisles while stopping to allow audience members to strum his guitar as he fingered the notes.
The show was opened by Quinn Sullivan, a 16 year-old blues prodigy from New Bedford who has been playing with Guy since the age of 7. Sullivan’s opening set was impressive, as the guitarist demonstrated an aggressive, fiery style equally inspired by Guy and latter-day greats such as Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Sullivan later joined Guy to close out the show with an extended jam on a medley of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix tunes. It was poignant moment, watching Guy play some of the classic music he inspired with a young player steeped in the style he pioneered. It was enough to give you hope that, even as the legends of the genre fade into history, the electric blues might just live on.